Threats to national security and prosperity have grown, both at home and abroad, in the 19 years since 9/11, the deadliest ever terrorist attacks on the United States.
Though critics are reluctant to admit it, President Trump has addressed some of these well. Cracking down on China, for instance, was long overdue. So was killing two jihadi leaders who were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans in the Middle East. Persuading the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to recognize Israel was an important achievement, whether or not Saudi Arabia and other Arab states do so as well. Diplomacy in Afghanistan has resulted in serious talks between the government and the Taliban that may end more than 40 years of conflict there. Yet Trump has failed to address some of the most ominous new threats, often for partisan reasons.
Biological weapons and pathogens
If the coronavirus has taught us anything, it is that natural or genetically manipulated pathogens can be highly contagious and cost effective killers. An estimated 300 million people died in the 20th century alone from smallpox, the variola virus that killed a third of those it infected before a vaccine was developed. Yet before its collapse in 1991, the former Soviet Union was alleged to have secretly produced and stockpiled 100 metric tons of variola major a year.
Classical biological weapons have proven hard for terrorists to make or use. Given recent advances in biotechnology, however, the ability to create genetically modified superbugs is increasingly cheap and more widespread. After 9/11 and the ensuing anthrax attacks, President Bush increased spending on germ threats. But the current pandemic has revealed the utter mismanagement of our preparedness effort.
Americans have died for lack of masks, protective gear, testing and treatment, quite apart from a president who, knowing what he said was untrue, repeatedly assured the country that the coronavirus was not as serious as the flu, would miraculously disappear or might respond to a series of quack treatments, and that wearing masks was not necessary. Though Trump has poured billions into research to find a vaccine and better treatments, he has largely spurned the international medical surveillance networks and collaboration needed to spot the emergence of lethal pathogens.
Climate change and environment
While previous administrations warned of the danger of climate change, President Obama tried to define it as a national security priority. But political foes mocked his Pentagon roadmap on the issue, which identified climate climate as an "urgent and growing threat to our national security" and described how rising seas, eroding coastlines, worsening droughts, melting icecaps, and devastating wildfires would endanger our 7,000 military installations around the world.
Skeptics also belittled the United Nations summit in Paris in 2015, at which the United States and some 200 countries pledged to diminish greenhouse gas and carbon output "as soon as possible" to keep global warming to "well below 2 degrees centigrade." The decision by Trump to withdraw from that treaty at the earliest possible date, one a day after the election this November, would leave the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world as the only country to abandon the global effort. Despite the lack of an alternative strategy, Trump derided the Paris agreement as a "total disaster" that hurt our competitiveness.
As deadly wildfires roared across the West Coast last week, consuming more than 6 million acres of Oregon, California, and Washington, nearly double a typical season, West Coast residents endured toxic air, triple digit heat, and rolling blackouts. As a result, climate change has become an important election issue. "If you are in denial about climate change," said Governor Gavin Newsom, "come to California."
Severe weather damage to people and economies around the world has triggered destabilizing mass migrations on a scale that might ultimately deny The effort by Trump to secure our national border with a wall or by any other means. A World Bank study found that worsening weather in Southeast Asia, home to nearly a fourth of the global population, had already prompted 8.5 million people to move toward Europe, the Middle East, and North America. Some 17 million to 36 million more soon may be on the move, the World Bank projects, with similar migrations in the Americas.
Digital networks and cyberthreats
As in so many areas, America's offense is far more developed than its defense of critical dams, power stations and grids, air space, digital networks and other essential infrastructure. Though much of the information remains classified, the Washington Post, based on documents provided by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, reported in 2013 that American intelligence agencies conducted 231 offensive cyber operations in 2011 alone, nearly three-quarters targeting such adversaries as Iran, Russia, China and North Korea and such activities as nuclear proliferation.
By contrast, government reports and independent studies suggest the nation's critical infrastructure, most of it in private hands, remains appallingly vulnerable. In March, the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, founded by the late Sen. John McCain, issued a report concluding that most of America's networks that store, process and analyze data probably have been compromised. "We are in a new, permanent state of conflict, indeed, of war," said one Russian expert with access to national security information, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Given the nation's inability to protect its most vital digital and physical infrastructure, this is not a war America is positioned to win. Microsoft recently joined American intelligence agencies in asserting that the Russian military intelligence unit that attacked the Democratic National Committee in 2016 continues to stage ever-stealthier attacks on both Democrats and Republicans.
The warning came a day after a government whistleblower alleged the White House and Department of Homeland Security suppressed intelligence about Russia's continued hacking because it made Trump "look bad" and ordered analysts to focus on China and Iran. The White House denies that charge, but Trump's persistent reluctance to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin reinforces questions about whether he hopes to benefit from Russian hacking.
Microsoft's allegation that Russia is a far more sophisticated hacker than China or Iran also contradicts the White House narrative that China poses the more serious cyberthreat. And Microsoft's finding that China has mostly targeted Joe Biden's campaign undermines the White House charge that China is interfering with the election to help Biden win.
Domestic insurrection and unrest
The U.S. has more guns than people. Think about what right-wing extremists might do if Trump is defeated in what they perceive to be a stolen election. Or, for that matter, what anarchists and left-wing extremists have been doing in Portland, Seattle, Kenosha, Wis., Rochester, N.Y., and other cities where peaceful protests have turned violent at night.
In a recent Zoom meeting hosted by The Common Good, a nonpartisan group that encourages dialogue and bipartisan policies, Jane Harman, a former Democratic congresswoman who now directs the Wilson Center in Washington, and Michael Chertoff, a former Homeland Security secretary, agreed that while militant Islamist terrorism remains a grave threat, the growth of domestic terrorism — particularly "right-wing" extremism — concerns them more.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies reported in June and July, based on reviews of nearly 900 terrorist plots and attacks in the United States between early 1994 and 2020, that not only did right wing attacks and plots account for the majority of domestic incidents but also grew "significantly, outpacing terrorism from other types of perpetrators, including those from far-left networks and individuals inspired by the Islamic State and Al Qaeda." Right wing extremists perpetrated two-thirds of the attacks and plots in the United States in 2019 and more than 90 percent so far this year.
Chertoff said his "paramount" concern is that foreign or domestic interference with the voting process will undermine confidence in and the legitimacy of our elections. A protracted legal and political battle, he warned, would make "Bush v. Gore look like a kindergarten exercise." Thus, plummeting faith in our democratic system might be the greatest threat of all to national security.